More from San Salvador

Our outing to the coast was one of my favorites. The Pacific coastline is rugged in places, with big wide black sand beaches in others. It’s famous for it’s surf breaks, and that seems to be why most tourists come here. We ate deliciously cheap seafood right at the pier where the catch comes in. They prepare baby shrimp that you eat whole, shell and all. I freaked out a bit when the conch started moving and squirming when they squeezed lime on it. Apparently it’s only good when eaten ALIVE.

I also tried cow heart (not from the sea!) and a delightful fruit called granada, which is similar to pomegranate. Gladys taught me how to make fried plantains (the salty ones, not sweet ones), which I could eat day and night. They have a house by the beach they use on weekends, and used to raise rabbits there FOR EATING.

One day I made a huge salad, and they kept going on about how good it was. I think they don’t eat many fresh vegetables, even though the ingredients are available. Up in the mountains, we stopped to sample some of the local food on offer. I wish I could remember the name of this corn-based hot beverage spiced with cinnamon. It was delicious.

There are tons of fireworks for sale everywhere. Should be a bangin’ Christmas.
People from the various political parties are constantly on streetcorners waving huge flags, handing out brochures, putting up signs. It’s nice to see people so involved in the process.
There is a movement here to get U2 to tour here. The organization put up billboards, ads in papers, I’ve seen T-shirts, a web site, it’s very organized. Passion!
Similar to Honduras, I’ve learned that fast-food places have Wi-Fi. So I get my fixes by hanging around Pizza Huts and Pollo Comparos.

One day we went house hunting. They looked at a very modern place with 4 bedrooms, 4 baths, large living rooms, modern appliances, balconies, in a gated community, landscaped – $230k.

It makes such a difference staying with a family versus in a hotel. Walking the neighborhood, chatting with people, shopping in the market, being included in their daily activities. Unfortunately my Spanish is still quite poor, so I can’t participate in many of the conversations. All but the husband in the family speak at least some English, which makes things easy for me at home. I need to gather some discipline to study each day! Either that or take a week off to go back to school.


Hiking down into volcano

El Salvador certainly has more than it’s fair share of natural disasters between the earthquakes, eruptions, hurricanes, and mud slides. George and I hiked down into the bowl of a volcano (El Boquerón) that most recently erupted in 1917 – that’s the inner cone in the photos. The enormous bowl that it sits in was from the eruption in 1671. The crater is 1.6km wide and 558m deep. It was quite a hike. On the way down, we kept getting lost in the trails that locals use for their crops. On the way back up, we luckily we ran into a family whose father had brought rope, since there were several sections where the trail had given way to gravity and it would have been quite a struggle to get back up without the rope. This father had 11 of his children in tow. Good god!


Me gusta El Salvador

I can’t believe I almost didn’t come to El Salvador. This country has surprised me in many ways – the affluent, suburban lifestyle of many people I’ve met; the friendly, helpful, and humorous disposition of even the poorest of people; the range of natural beauty existing in such a small area.

I have been staying at George’s sister’s house in San Salvador (the capital) for the past week, a small but comfortable middle-class home. They’ve been extremely generous and welcoming. In the house with Gladys the sister is her husband Mario, their son Harvin who is home for the holidays from university in Nicaragua, and William, a brother of Gladys and George. Their life is like a soap opera. Just a few tastes:
William lost his legs 10 years ago when he slipped getting on a bus and got run over. George says it was William’s fault since he was drunk, while William blames the driver because HE was drunk. Both are probably true. William maintains that after accidentally running him over, the driver purposely backed over him trying to kill him, since a funeral is cheaper to pay for than disability.

Speaking of funerals, the family had to go to Honduras in the middle of the week because one of their sisters died unexpectedly. William and I stayed home. The tradition here is that the entire extended family, neighbors, and friends all sit in the house with the body all night long, out of respect for the deceased. So after the 9 hour drive, they all had to stay awake all night, attend the burial the next morning, then drive back. They didn’t sleep for about 40 hours. People bring food and drink and you sit and talk all night while the dead lays there in the room. The burial happens the next day because it would start to decompose if they were to wait any longer – they don’t use embalming fluids here. I rather like the simplicity of the process here, instead of the morbid, expensive, and unnecessary funeral industry in the States. The coffin is simple. The body is transported in a pick-up truck to the cemetary, with all the cars slowly following. The grave is dug by local laborers, and the family lowers the casket and places the first dirt themselves.

This family is emblematic of one of the things I admire most about Latin Americans – their dogged perseverence in the face of adversity. Despite being confined to a wheelchair in a country sorely lacking accessibility, William never bitches or moans. He gets around on his own with a sunny disposition. George was rich until recently, when the IRS repossesed his cars and house for failing to report all the income from his car dealership. But rather than moping about it, he just chalks it up to experience and already has plans for starting other businesses. He’s extremely capable. I’ve been helping him renovate the house (you haven’t lived until you’ve deconstructed tile with a sledgehammer and cold chisel), and it seems there is nothing he can’t do. That’s just it – even if he doesn’t know how to do something, he just gets on with it and figures it out. There’s never any thought of “I can’t”. [Admittedly his wiring wouldn’t pass any code, but as we say in theatre, “done is good.”]
My point is that they are “on the court”, to use Landmark language. Actively pushing forward, leaving no space for fear or self-doubt. As opposed to living “in the stands” – constantly judging and observing, but having no real power. They’re inspiring to me, since I’ve spent so much of my life in the stands.

Gladys, William and George were originally 3 of 14 siblings that are now 7. Most of them died young due to the lack of medical care here. William might still have his legs if they had real ambulances. By the time he made it to a decent hospital, gangrene had set in and they had to amputate. Moreover, they were going to let him die if it weren’t for his family in the States flying down and saving the day with large amounts of cash. I’ve learned all about the intricacies of wheelchair design. William has four of them, in fact – one to play football with, another for racing, etc.

Gladys is a modern Latino woman – a high-powered lawyer by day, with her nails and hair always perfectly done. By night, she comes home and takes care of her men. Although she wears the pants in the household, she also does all the work – constantly cleaning and cooking. They do have a housekeeper who comes a few days a week, but Gladys is always re-doing her work, so I don’t quite see the point. I gather she irons a mean shirt, so they keep her around for that. I came home one day to find that she had gone through my entire suitcase and pulled out all my clothes to wash, whether they needed it or not. Good grief.

The largest (and most upscale) shopping mall in Central America is here. Observing people wearing Gucci talking on their iPhones and driving Audis, one would almost mistake this for Naples, Florida if it weren’t for the signs in Spanish. American chain stores are well represented here – Bennigan’s and Ruby Tuesdays are popular places to hang out. Actually, it’s a nice feeling – families and all ages stroll around the indoor/outdoor mall each evening. The modern town square. Starbucks has yet to make inroads, if you can believe it. Although the best coffee is grown for export, most people drink instant coffee in their homes.

Being the libertarian socialist that I am, I naturally question their priorities. George kept pointing things out, making favorable comparisons to the U.S. As if the crass commercialism and rat race is something all so-called developing nations should aspire to. Please.

Although it is ostensibly a poor, developing nation, the government has clearly invested heavily in infrastructure. The condition of the roads, for example, is on par with G8 nations – and a far cry from that of neighboring countries. The parks are clean, well landscaped, and decked out in holiday lights. The bus system, although privately run by individual owner-operators (amazing that they all work together) is modern and efficient. All of this surely attracts foreign investment, which is no doubt part of the grand scheme of recovery after the brutal civil war which lasted from ’79 to ’92. 70,000 people died in all. Relations with the U.S. is strong, in fact it’s the only Central American country with troops in Iraq.

Initially I thought I would need to spend nights away from the capital in order to see all the sights in the countryside. And that might be true if I were relying on public transport. But the family has cars, and it turns out most of the country is reachable within a few hours drive from the capital. Volcanoes with stunning vistas, Pacific coastline reminiscent of California, pretty little whitewashed towns where artisans toil away on handicrafts for their fellow countrymen, since there are still hardly any tourists in El Salvador.

There are some amazing churches here – many pretty old ones, and several modern ones with crazy architecture.
I saw punks on the street! Replete with mohawks, leather, and chains. That made me happy. Goth kids, too. First ones I’ve seen in my three months down here.
The downtown scene is crazy – glutted with vendors shouting their wares, the traffic hardly moves. A plethora of sights, smells, and sounds.

Get this – the traffic wardens wear clown outfits. I’m not kidding. I saw a clown directing traffic, asked the family what the hell that was, and they gave the answer – as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I guess it helps make them visible.

The weather has been perfect – no rain, not too hot, pleasantly cool evenings.

Suchitoto is the arts capital of the country, similar to what Antigua is to Guatemala – although far more relaxed and much less touristy. It’s a small, beautiful colonial town that is uncanily peaceful and tranquil, although it was a site of a lot of fighting during the war – there are scars everywhere. I could see spending a week or more here, just walking the cobblestone streets and taking Spanish classes.
Unlike neighboring countries, every town here seems to have a theatre. I haven’t caught any productions, but it makes me happy that’s a priority here.

As usual, the thumbnails only show part of the photo. Click on each one to get the full shot. Then click again to see (or download) it in high res.


Arrival in El Salvador

Just a quick note to say that I’m in El Salvador now, in the capital (San Salvador). I have a new phone number: +503 753 438 46. Not sure if I can receive texts, try me.

My hostel is down the street from the largest mall in Central America. If it weren’t for the signs in Spanish, I would think I was in Naples, FL or San Jose, CA. Very surreal, and not what I expected to find here!

Contributing to the culture shock is that they phased out the Colon (their old currency) a few years back, in favor of U.S. Dollars. I haven’t used dollars in three months, it feels strange.

Meeting up with George tonight. His sister lives here. I might stay with them the next few nights.
I have a cold, damn it! But the weather is nice – dry and warm. Took a nice 1st class bus here.. easy border crossing, didn’t even stamp passport.

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